Practice Economics

Hospital Medicine's Old Practices Become New Again


The musty collections of National Geographic magazines once found in so many basements are largely gone. Replacing them are dusty sets of the Advisory Board binders and booklets found in hospital administration offices around the country. I think the same principle drives the impulse to collect both publications—the idea that they contain worthwhile information that one day will be reviewed. But I think it’s more likely they will be ignored until it is time to move and someone has to decide what to do with the painfully heavy pile of paper.

Lots of old and largely forgotten things are making a comeback in healthcare. I suppose this is always happening, but I sense we’re now experiencing more of this than usual. It’s a renaissance of sorts.

I first heard about fecal transplant for Clostridium difficile infection (instilling a “better” microbiome in the hope of realizing many benefits) about six or eight years ago. Although I was sure this was a new idea, my retired internist father told me this had been around when he was in training. Wikipedia says that four Colorado surgeons published a paper about it in 1958 and that the Chinese were doing this 1,600 years ago.

PCPs Visit Hospitalized Patients

Writing in the NEJM earlier this year, Goroll and Hunt proposed that primary care physicians visit their hospitalized patients in the role of consultant while the hospitalist remains attending. As they note, this idea surfaced as soon as the hospitalist model began taking hold. Back then, we usually referred to it as a “social visit” by the PCP. Anecdotal experience from my work with hundreds of hospitalist groups tells me that such visits have all but disappeared. But nearly every such PCP visit on a patient I’ve cared for has seemed worthwhile; in many cases, these hospital calls simply reassure a nervous patient or family member, and occasionally they ensure that the PCP and I arrive at a more effective plan of care than we might otherwise.

The trick in all of this will be to ensure the right amount of overlap, or shared visits, between PCP and hospitalist, without expensive duplication of effort or errors stemming from too many cooks in the kitchen.

Perhaps new forms of healthcare reimbursement, accountable care, and population health may make “continuity visits” economically viable for PCPs. Wouldn’t it be interesting if PCP visits to hospitalized patients and hospitalist visits to outpatients, such as those occurring in a pre-op clinic or a skilled nursing facility, become commonplace? The trick in all of this will be to ensure the right amount of overlap, or shared visits, between PCP and hospitalist without expensive duplication of effort or errors stemming from too many cooks in the kitchen.

Post-Hospital Follow-Up Schedules

When I began practicing as a hospitalist in the 1980s, doctors routinely wrote orders similar to this one: “Have patient follow up with Dr. Smith (PCP or specialist) in 1-2 weeks.” The unit secretary or other hospital clerical staff would contact the physician’s office to schedule the appointment, and the patient would leave the hospital with a written reminder in hand. My sense is that nearly all hospitals had been doing this for decades; somehow this practice has nearly disappeared over the last 10-20 years, however, and I sometimes hear this old practice discussed as a new idea.

I think making sure the patient has a follow-up appointment in hand when leaving the hospital is likely good for clinical outcomes, readmissions, and patient satisfaction. In my view, it is hardly worth lots of research to prove the benefit of what should be a relatively low-cost intervention. Why not just have providers write orders detailing follow-up with a specific doctor or clinic and a timeframe, and have unit secretaries communicate with outpatient clinics to schedule the appointments and ensure that the details are provided to the patient, maybe via an EHR-generated after visit summary? Seems pretty easy, right?

Turns out it isn’t easy at all for most hospitals. Lots of energetic hospitalists have taken on a project like this, only to run into so many brick walls. One hospitalist told me recently that the unit secretary’s labor union at her hospital refused to allow it. So some hospitals have turned to a single person, or a small group of people, who make appointments for all hospital patients. Some hospitalist groups have one of their own staff make appointments for hospitalist patients. This relieves the unit secretaries of the task but requires additional funding for the salaries of these people.

Maybe, at some time not so far off, EHRs will be so user-friendly and patients/families so accustomed to using them that it will be common for patients/families to arrange the appointments on their own. It could even be a required step—a hard stop—in the discharge process.

Whatever emerges as the most common method of making these appointments, I think it is safe to say this old practice will become “new” and common within the next few years.

Multidisciplinary Rounds

While working as an orderly in the 1970s, I would often visit with the nurses in their break room. When a doctor arrived to make rounds on the floor, the RN would jump up, stub out her cigarette, and round with the doctor. I sometimes tagged along as an observer. The nurse let the doctor know just how the patient had been doing and provided test results and any other relevant information the doctor might need. The doctor would provide orders, and sometimes the nurse wrote them into the chart (think of today’s medical scribes). Although their interaction was much less collaborative than is typical today, they did ask lots of questions of one another to clarify ambiguities.

I think these 1970s caregivers were doing effective multidisciplinary rounds. But by the late 1980s or so, as both doctor and nurse became busier, they stopped rounding together.

I smile when I hear descriptions of this “new” idea of doctor and nurse (and often other caregivers) rounding together. Today’s hospital culture is less hierarchical than the 1970s, though some would say it still has a ways to go, so teamwork and multidisciplinary rounds may yield more benefit than decades ago. But the idea of rounding together certainly isn’t new.

As we try to figure out the best way to thrive in a rapidly changing healthcare environment, we may find value in returning to the old ways of doing some things.

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988. He is co-founder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. Write to him at [email protected].

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